Thursday, May 4, 2017

International Children's Theater Festival (2017)

"I won't hurt you ... I think I'm Canadian."
(Morgan's Journey)
One of my very favorite times of year is when the annual International Children’s Theatre Festival produced by Playhouse Square comes to town. Now in its eighth year, the festival brings together theater companies from around the globe for performances in and around the theater district, in the many spaces in Playhouse Square and even spilling out onto the street during the weekend (weather permitting.)

The availability of this rich and varied banquet of theater for young audiences has been so valuable to me in my work, one of the countless reasons I am grateful to work downtown. We play it very safe with our children in the United States, wishing to shelter them from uncomfortable subjects, choosing the keep the vocabulary we use with them simple.

Experiencing productions from other nations you can see much more challenging work. Yesterday I got to see an adaptation of the book The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono, performed by Puppet State Theatre (Scotland). The tale itself is simply told, with several homely puppets and also actual scents of lavender and mint. The child audience was delighted to be water and misted like plants.

The real treat, however, was the downright hilarious banter between narrator Richard Medrington and a dog puppet operated by Rick Conte which was threaded through the performance. I am led to believe that a great deal of it was off-the-cuff, which is remarkable as their comic timing together is laid back and impeccable, the humor at once witty sophisticated and also festooned with groan-worthy dog jokes.

Dog in "The Man Who Planted Trees."
Earlier I had seen Grug and the Rainbow, from Windmill Theatre (Australia) and adapted from the book by Ted Prior. The many characters are represented by a variety of puppets, the title character himself in a variety of sizes to add a forced perspective to the proceedings. Bonus points for incorporating a vinyl record player into the mix.

Teachers with student groups can be heavy on the shushing during student matinees, which may be appropriate with high school students attending Shakespeare. (In certain cases like that, I wish a few of them did a bit more shushing.) The best children’s shows, like this one, encourage an audible reaction from the kids. Grug was learning to play a drum and the children couldn’t help but stop their feet and I thought some of their minders were going to go off on them when the performers insisted the students stand and dance to the music!

What always surprises me is how much surprises them -- big gasps of surprise, coos of appreciation and delight, and all the laughter. This morning I saw Robert Morgan in Morgan’s Journey (Canada) an astonishingly moving solo clown show about what it means to be human, to be alive. That’s the journey, learning the meaning of sacrifice, to think outside of yourself, to love others.

Isn’t that what the best plays are all about, anyway?

The Eighth Annual International Children's Theatre Festival at Playhouse Square continues through May 7.

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